Skype a Scientist founder Sarah McAnulty wants us to know that “science is for everyone, and it’s up to scientists to invite people back to science.”
McAnulty’s November 15 talk, “Science is for Everyone: Making the Biggest Impact with Your Science Communication,” provided science communication tips for her Virginia Tech audience.
From an early age, many people develop the impression science is too hard or that they aren’t the type of person who could be a scientist. This separation between scientists and others causes intimidation and distrust between the public and the scientific community, McAnulty said.
McAnulty’s Fralin Auditorium talk was well attended, and we want to extend her message by offering her key communication ideas to help bridge the disconnect between scientists and the public:
Tip #1: Know your goal and audience
The first step to good communication is to know your goal and audience. McAnulty suggests asking yourself the following questions: Whom do you want to reach? What do you want them to know? How do you want them to feel? Your approach to these questions should change depending on your target audience and goal.
Tip #2: Take advantage of social media
McAnulty notes that one of the best things about social media is that “you can communicate your science using a casual voice, like you are talking with your friends at a restaurant.” Multiple platforms are available, including Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. Twitter is especially popular with scientists and science communicators, so it can be a great place for professional networking as well, she points out.
One of the critical steps to growing your following on any of these platforms is to post regularly, McAnulty advises. Maintaining an active and steady presence on social media will encourage people to follow you and interact with your content.
McAnulty also suggests that your photos show scientists in action. She says that according to recent studies on the emotional impact of science communication using social media, “Putting people in pictures of science emotionally lands much better with people who aren’t scientists.”
Tip #3: Take time to listen
Scientists are known for lecturing and are often criticized for being pretentious and closed to outside opinions. To combat these common perceptions, it’s important to start conversations with your audience. McAnulty suggests some engaging ways to facilitate a conversation on social media: start polls, ask questions, reply to posts, and create fun social media games or competitions.
Tip #4: If social media isn’t your thing, go out into your community
“Public outreach can be especially important in places that aren’t close to city centers,” McAnulty explains, “where people never get the chance to go to a science center or meet a scientist.” There are a lot of great places to meet and interact with people about your research, some of which include bars, farmers markets, schools, and community centers.
One of McAnulty’s favorite things to do when she goes to places to talk about her research is to bring a hands-on prop or activity for people to interact with: “I’ve found that bringing fossils or little tools can be helpful because I don’t want to constantly be talking, and people tend to engage better when props are available.”
Tip #5: Try your best to represent and include everyone
“When we are doing science communication, our main goal is to invite people into science, so the last thing we would want to do is exclude certain groups of people,” says McAnulty. Some important things to keep in mind when practicing inclusive science communication are using inclusive language, making sure that people with disabilities can participate in your activities, and holding events that are accessible to economically disadvantaged communities.
McAnulty concluded her lecture with her set of “Commandments of Science Communication”:
- Entertain before you educate
- Don’t use jargon
- Be inclusive
- Think outside your bubble
- Include stories wherever possible
- Show your personality
- Meet people where they are
- Remember that perfect is the enemy of good.
Simply giving people a friendly face to associate with science is a worthy goal, as it will help to make people more comfortable with science and scientists. As McAnulty puts it, “You don’t have to change someone’s mind all in one tweet.” Don’t give up if you feel like your first post or conversation wasn’t a success, because it’s all about practice, she advises.
McAnulty’s visit to Virginia Tech was initiated by graduate students Elaine Barr and Brandon Semel and supported by the Center for Communicating Science and the Virginia Tech Science Festival.
For more information about McAnulty’s science communication efforts and about Skype a Scientist, you can follow McAnulty on Twitter at @SarahMackAttack and visit the Skype a Scientist website.
By Lauren Holt, Center for Communicating Science student intern